Children's drama as it should be plaid…







IF ONE of the purposes of the National Theatre of Scotland is to give longer life to fine shows that might otherwise languish in ill-deserved obscurity, then it achieves that aim in superb style – with bells, whistles, a dash of tartan, and a dose of 7:84-style politics – in the brilliant revival of Wee Stories' The Emperor's New Kilt that opened this week at the King's Theatre in Edinburgh.

First seen on a modest village-hall tour back in 2004, this classic show from the finest of all Scotland's companies for children started life as a tiny piece for three actors, with a set that consisted of no more than a couple of tartan rugs and an old clothes-horse. The story begins in the imaginations of a wee brother and sister, on holiday in the far north-west of Scotland, who show up their bossy elder brother by pretending – with the aid of a pair of binoculars – to see an island far out on the horizon which doesn't really exist. They call the place "Kiltie"; and in no time at all, we find ourselves plunged into the matching story of Kiltie itself, a place owned lock, stock and sheep-run by a pompous daftie of a laird who orders a brand-new kilt as a birthday present, and is promptly ripped off by a pair of urban con-men who arrive on the island and – with the connivance of the delighted locals – pretend to make the new kilt out of material that only clever people can see.

Meanwhile, a lovely wee islander called Rona has left her old grandpa at their croft, and is making her way to the Laird's Big House with her pet sheep Ramsay, whose fleece has been requisitioned for the making of the kilt. Cue a hilarious and telling series of adventures, in which every known clich of island life is noisily celebrated, and most of them briskly subverted, while Ramsay the Sheep – brilliantly played by Andy Cannon, with a pair of toddler wellies for front feet – emerges as an unlikely hero.

What's delightful about this new, large-scale version of the show, though – like a cheeky summer pantomime crossed with an electronic ceilidh – is the skill with which Cannon and his designer, Becky Minto, manage to preserve the improvised slapstick charm of the original, while using the scale of the big stage to evoke the beauty and magic of the whole island landscape, with its dazzling colours and sometimes breathtaking scale.

Cannon, Iain Johnstone and Louise Montgomery make a superb core performance team, with the kind of presence that makes a big auditorium seem immediately intimate and warm. And if the show's strong anti-laird political stance sometimes seems laid on with a trowel, most of Cannon's writing is so witty, so confident, so deeply rooted in Scottish speech-rhythms, and so subtly subversive, that even the most militant members of the laird class are likely to find themselves laughing, as this deceptively simple delight of a show tours across Scotland and to points south over the next two months.

Even in as light-hearted a show as this, though, the sad shadow of the Highland Clearances can be felt in the landscape, and it's this same story of displacement and forced migration – with an added, distant thunder of genocidal horror – that provides the historical backdrop to the great 1960s musical Fiddler On The Roof. The sheer vividness of the show's original music and choreography – and the charm of legendary stars such as Topol – has of course made Fiddler On The Roof one of the best-loved showbiz hits of all time.

For a reminder of the sheer emotional and historical power of this tremendous story, though, it's worth seeing Julian Woolford's austere and beautiful touring production, playing this week at the Edinburgh Playhouse. With its dancing figures moving against a wash of golden sky that suggests a perpetual sunset, this show is not so much impressive in detail – although the dancing and music are glorious – as overwhelming in its seriousness of purpose, and its cumulative effect. Joe McGann is in muted, almost subdued vocal form as the hero Tevye the milkman, trying to honour Jewish tradition and keep his family together while tides of historic change sweep towards his little village of Anatevka. But he acts like a man stunned into reverence by the significance of the story he carries on his shoulders, not only for Jewish people, but for all the scapegoated and dispossessed of history, and when a page of family portraits from the Warsaw ghetto slides down over the big Playhouse stage at the end of each act, the hairs rise on the back of the neck, in recognition of a superb and intensely humane piece of theatre.

In Selma Dimitrijevic's Gods Are Fallen And All Safety Gone, meanwhile, playing this week in the lunchtime Play, Pie and Pint season, it's not the grand forces of history and migration that make the central character Annie feel displaced, but the timeless experience of the death of a parent. Dimitrijevic's sequence of four repeating mother-daughter conversations – covering the period of the mother's final illness and death – is perfectly simple in structure. But within its framework, she produces a superbly subtle analysis of the comedy and agony of this closest of family relationships, and Selina Boyack and Anne Lacey give two performances to treasure, in one of the finest Oran Mor plays of the season so far.

&#149 The Emperor's New Kilt at the King's Theatre, Edinburgh, until tomorrow, and on tour. Fiddler On The Roof at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, and Gods Are Fallen And All Safety Gone at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until tomorrow.

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